The use of Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) in ESL classrooms has been demonstrated to benefit teachers and promote student learning. Its implementation, however, impacts not only teachers and students but also program administrators.1 It is up to a program’s administrator to provide leadership, supervision, motivation, and support, and to create optimum conditions for successful PBLA implementation. (See Conditions for Success below.)
The implementation of PBLA may necessitate a shift over time in how programs do things. The program may experience growing pains and ups and downs in enthusiasm and commitment as teachers experience success or encounter frustration. This is normal in a long-term change initiative. It is helpful if administrators can anticipate and plan for the implementation of PBLA and develop strategies to manage the change process effectively.
Communication between instructor and student is greatly enhanced through this [PBLA] process. The students absolutely love it. They have a much better understanding of their abilities. But the biggest impact is the standardization of information between programs and service providers. Students move around with portfolios that have demonstrations of what they are able to do. Their next instructor spends much less time assessing where they are at when they enter the class.
– Shirley Graham,
LINC and ESL Coordinator,
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board,
2013 TESL Canada Conference presentation
This section provides suggestions to help you get ready for PBLA and ensure successful implementation in your program.
Systemic change is complex and long term. The literature on change management, especially in the context of education, provides considerable insight and ways forward for the implementation of PBLA. The following key themes emerge:
The specification of what needs to change in actual classroom practice and service provider organization (SPO) culture, and what it will take to achieve the specified changes must be clearly articulated and shared with all staff.
Continuous learning among staff must be embraced and not isolated within individual SPOs. Instead, it should be collaborative across SPOs and jurisdictions.
Change activities must focus simultaneously on changing teacher practice and changing the culture and system within which teachers work.
Motivation to engage long term in the individual and collective effort needed to change is critical, as is effective leadership.
Capacity building that focuses on results and embeds “positive pressure” is essential.
Learning must occur in, or be applied to, local and larger contexts.
Reflective action must be built in: that is, teachers and other stakeholders need to engage in purposeful thinking about what they are doing.
“Permeable connectivity” (Fullan 2006) must be fostered: that is, strategies that promote engagement, mutual interaction, and influences across all levels of responsibility must be pursued.
Conditions for Successful PBLA Implementation
PBLA is premised on the understanding that ongoing assessment is fundamental to good teaching. It also reflects a belief that teachers are best situated to observe and assess their students’ language proficiency in a variety of language tasks over time and that they have or can develop the necessary expertise. It is an approach that integrates assessment into reflective teaching practice and engages students in actively planning and thinking about their language learning.
Many aspects of PBLA will already be familiar to teachers and administrators; however, the introduction of PBLA may necessitate that they undertake familiar activities and strategies in different ways. PBLA is most successful in programs that meet certain conditions, as outlined below:
Administrators have a student-centred approach to program planning.
Administrators encourage an “assessment culture” within their program in which assessment is discussed openly and positively and is not seen as a “necessary chore.”
As much as possible, administrators implement workplace-like expectations of students regarding attendance and arrival and departure times.
Administrators manage intake of new students and inter-classroom transfers to minimize disruption to teachers and students.
Administrators cluster students to address needs most appropriately and minimize multilevel classes.
Administrators understand and appreciate the benefits of PBLA and assume a leadership role as champion of PBLA implementation.
Administrators recognize their accountability for appropriate PBLA implementation and provide clear and supportive direction.
Administrators commit to staying informed of developments in PBLA.
Administrators understand that change is a long-term, complex process.
Administrators commit to engage long term and to provide leadership in the individual and collective effort needed to change.
Administrators are engaged and informed members of PBLA professional communities, such as the PBLA Administrators group on Tutela.ca.
Teachers have a student-centred approach to teaching, including assessment.
Teachers demonstrate a willingness to approach assessment from a new perspective.
Teachers implement workplace-like expectations in their classes regarding attendance and arrival and departure times.
Teachers believe their students are capable adults and strive to foster independence.
Teachers make PBLA part of their instructional planning and reflective practice, and regularly ask themselves, “Why am I doing this and how?”
Teachers employ effective instructional and classroom-management strategies in multilevel classrooms.
Teachers have the requisite knowledge of the CLB and skill in task-based instruction and assessment.
Teachers view assessment as a fundamental professional responsibility and not as a “necessary chore.”
Teachers understand the role of ongoing assessment in planning for teaching.
Teachers have a commitment to their ongoing professional development.
Teachers embrace initiatives that will benefit their students.
Teachers are motivated and motivating.
Teachers understand and appreciate the benefits of PBLA to themselves and their students.
Teachers commit to engage in the individual and collective effort needed to incorporate PBLA into their teaching practice.
Teachers regularly engage in positive problem solving.
Teachers engage in ongoing activities that focus simultaneously on developing their expertise related to PBLA and adapting, as necessary, to the culture and system within which they work.
Teachers are willing to collaborate with colleagues within and across programs and jurisdictions.
Students have a clear purpose for learning English.
Students have identified language-learning needs.
Students have an articulated language-learning goal.
Students assume greater responsibility for their language learning.2
Students attend regularly.
Students arrive on time for the beginning of class and do not leave early.
Students actively engage in language-learning activities.
Students are aware of their level of language proficiency and the goals towards which they are striving.
Students engage sufficiently and appropriately in PBLA activities.
In planning for the implementation of PBLA, it is helpful if administrators and teachers assess their program, identify and build on those conditions for success currently in place, and develop a plan to address any gaps.
The Change Cycle
Implementation of a major change has a predictable pattern. The model developed by Everett Rogers (2003) could be applied to an initiative such as PBLA, as portrayed in the visual below:
In this visual, the Lead Instructor would be considered an Early Adopter. The job now is to begin to work with colleagues, some of whom will be in the early majority, the late majority and some will be laggards who are resistant to the change initiative.
Early majority colleagues are likely to be CIs who show signs of buy-in for PBLA and a willingness to embrace the change in some fashion. They will try out the new approaches and see the positive implications of PBLA. They are likely to participate actively in meeting and PD activities to promote change and will give the initiative their best effort. They may express concern about whether they are doing it ‘right.’ These colleagues can help sway others as they encounter successes.
Late majority colleagues may be fence-sitters. They comprehend the nature and intent of the change initiative but have reservations about what it means for them. They may ‘play the game’ superficially, but be somewhat judgmental and display some resistance or occasional anger. As they become more comfortable, they are likely to show more optimism. Building on the small successes of these colleagues can help move them off the fence to become committed to PBLA.
Laggards are likely to include those who are unaware or confused about the change initiative or those who have some knowledge of the emerging change but are resistant to change. They may pay lip service to the initiative by participating in the activities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to implement PBLA, but may not carry the new skills over into their classrooms. Their pessimism may influence others and sabotage the initiative.
The Implementation Dip
Often when implementing change your program may experience an Implementation Dip due to several important factors:
Real change takes time. Give your program a minimum of 1 ½ – 2 years to adjust.
Complex change frequently causes early disequilibrium and anxiety, resulting in a loss of confidence in CIs (Am I doing this right?).
It is critical that you find ways to acknowledge and address challenges, celebrate small successes, and encourage instructors to keep on trying – particularly in the early stages of implementation. This will help prevent negative change (abandoning the process entirely or implementing it in a superficial manner that does not engage learners in their own learning). Below are some suggestions for building support.
First, begin to identify and build on the support and engagement of those who are open to PBLA. Having instructors who will champion PBLA along with you will help to engage the others.
Some strategies to build support include:
Urging classroom instructors to take risks, experiment, reflect and try again.
Encouraging early adopters to share their successes at workshops or meetings.
Asking early adopters – or others – to share useful resources they have developed on Tutela so that others can benefit.
Offering to meet one-on-one with instructors to discuss PBLA-related topics or to work on a challenge.
Having discussions with the administrator (when needed) around providing resources, scheduling time for training sessions and addressing identified challenges.
Encouraging curiosity and excitement about engaging in the change while recognizing and acknowledging instructors’ fear and frustration.
Resistance is a normal part of any major change process, and implementing PBLA is a major change. Instructors may feel apprehensive, criticized or even threatened.
Resistance can have a negative impact on change. The questions and objections of resistors need to be considered and addressed for the new initiative to work. However, constant, repetitious complainers can jeopardize Implementation. Below are some strategies to consider:
Ask complainers to become part of the solution. Ask for their ideas and suggestions to engage them, if possible, in the process.
Sit down with them to look at what they are currently doing and what fits with PBLA with small adjustments.
Ask resistors to try one new thing and when they do, be very positive in your response. If possible, share in public what they did with others on staff.
Don’t push resistors too hard or fast; instead, build on the progress of your more willing/engaged colleagues and make sure you give them recognition for their efforts.
Make arrangements for a resistor to visit the class of an early adopter and observe the instructor doing one thing related to PBLA. Discuss with them after what they liked and could use in their class. See if they will try it out and ask them to tell you how it goes.
Don’t become discouraged by one or two resistors. Continue to put effort into working with those instructors willing to engage with PBLA. Build on their successes and enthusiasm. Encourage them to share their ideas and resources with your colleagues. Continue to offer support and encouragement to resistors to try one new thing. Ask if they would like to work with a colleague on something.
If, in spite of your best efforts, an individual will not try to implement any aspect of PBLA, you will need to decide how to address the issue.
The graphic below, developed by John Fisher (2012) illustrates some of the emotions instructors may go through as they implement PBLA.
Over time, effective strategies will emerge. Confidence is regained as new patterns emerge and effectiveness exceeds original level of competence. Learning and transition take time, but the benefits to learners and instructors over all is worth the effort.
1The term program administrator is used in this guide to refer to the person responsible for the LINC program, including supervising and managing classroom teachers.
2Many students with limited formal education in L1 face many language-learning challenges. Although they require ongoing support and direction from their teachers, it is important to help them identify goals and assume more of the responsibility for their language learning.